In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

Keeping the memory, or “My old hardware is a burden to me”

My hard drive

My old hard drive – we’ve had some great memories together

The subject of this blog post started with a little pile next to my table. There’s a printer, a scanner and a generic box (of unsorted documents that graduates to sorted/processed documents) which sits right next to my desk. I have an 2006 Canon Pixma printer, which supposedly was designed to print photograph sized prints in photograph quality I used it a few times but I found that it ran out of ink very quickly. I argued this point with my dad that it is not economical to own such a printer that barely prints maybe 2 dozen prints for the cost of £30-40 colour prints, when you can get prints for 20p or so each these days. As such, for this reason, and due to the other reason that I have a smaller and more efficient portable printer (its so portable it fits in a shoe bag), my once fancy Pixma printer is now obsolete. Also thanks to great retailers like Boots and other such photo processing serviciers (sic).

 

This Pixma printer is a 1ft square or so heavy box of plastic that just fills up space. It feels like emotional clutter due to its unuse. I feel guilty that a fancy printer is essentially surplus to requirement. I then thought about the 2 xbox 360s that I have above a cupboard. I bought two because one of them was in disrepair and I felt a strong urge to get an xbox by christmas of some time maybe a year or two ago, in order to have a ‘halo marathon’ (a tradition among a few friends of mine). Now that the old Xbox 360 is obsoleted by the new Xbox One(tm); I have more tat that is just gathering dust. I also have Xbox accessories, games, pads and even a neat little wifi adaptor. If these things were universal for say, a PC or other device I surely could have found use for it.

 

Thinking about my old technology brought me to a deeper and deeper rabbit hole. I’ve got meters upon meters of USB cables all scrunched up in my desk. I have endless earphones that don’t work or half work, or are ugly that came free with something. I have AC adaptors for things I don’t even remember owning and some of these things are not even 10 years old yet I feel like I am one of those people on the hoarder TV shows.

 

All this technology finds itself obsolete very quickly and it makes me sad. Lately I’ve been thinking things like: I have been using my USB keyboard for 8 years now, I should get rid of it; perhaps I should get rid of my USB speakers – they have served their time.

 

Lately I bought a tablet and a phone. I have a reputation among my friends for having ‘old technology’, and I am often reluctant to stop using something simply because a newer version of x has come out, or that the newer version does more things. Having said that, I am not exactly a Luddite. I sometimes  used my older laptops as experiments in Linux and in overclocking and working beyond their original specifications and default software settings. I’ve found  that some laptops that I bought have hardware specs that purposely lock out other operating systems. The Xbox 360 and other consoles notably have measures to detect if a device has been modified and once noticed, locks out and bans the user/machine for what I think is an open and inquisitive exploration into a piece of software.

 

People should not feel guilty for ‘hacking’ into their store bought hardware and using technology in ways beyond the original company’s design for them. I’ve seen creative mp3 players installed with windows xp just to see if it can be done, and games consoles with fancy lighting. I think that such modifications are an ode of respect to the companies that made these devices, and show a sense of openness and imaginative creativity on part of the consumer, that makes a consumer an active participant in the commodities they buy, and exactly because of this, the things that they buy are not ‘commodities’ but enabling.

 

Products like the iPad and Windows 8 devices are said to be enabling by all the Press Releases and tech conference presentations, but only in a limited way of thinking and perceiving and using a device. I feel that there’s a political analogy here. I think about geographical space lately. In the area where I live, there are lots of shops, and lots of houses, but nothing else. There’s a public library, which had the threat of closure more than once in the past decade. However there’s not really much for anyone if you don’t have spending money or a mortgage/monthly rent. The physical space where I live is exceptionally limited in the terms set by consumption: you live, sleep, and buy.

 

For this reason I think that my local library is an amazing place. I like going to the library just to peruse the books. I see a lot of self-improvement books, a lot of books about Tamil culture (a cultural group who have a distinct presence locally) and even a few comics, graphic novels and Mangas. The library is a place where you can read magazines and newspapers at no charge and there are sometimes local Councillors having surgeries and children’s storytelling meetings there.

 

Outside of this little haven of the library is shop upon shop. The options are limited in shops: you buy, and that’s about it. This can be very isolating and exceptionally limiting to the imagination. With my group of friends we sometimes try to subvert the perception of geographical urban space by inserting a bit of humour (and confusion) to the area. One thing we like doing for example is going out in costume or wearing a horse mask, the breaching of our ascribed sense of conformity to public spaces shocks most of the public. Another thing we sometimes do is while in a moving car, play a bit of music on our instruments, usually people are amused or bemused. I think there is a significance to being bemused. It shows the possibility of other alternatives for use of that space. The ideal of art is to show an interpretation of the world differently and hopefully show that we can differently interpret the world as it is.

 

Technology is similar. Technologies are sold to us so often as things that are enabling and yet, when we are overwhelmed with it, or when we are sanctioned for using technology in an alternative way, this is hardly enabling. It saddens me that there is such limitations often built in to hardware, that limits alternative uses.

 

Another aspect of my woe about my hardware is that there’s such a waste. I’m getting rid of a few old laptops this month, and once upon a time they probably cumulatively cost £8000-9000 all together, and now I have to pay for someone to get it off my hands! All of the machines I’m getting rid of this month are not even over 10 years old. By contrast I still have some VCRs from the mid-late 1990s and they work as well as in the days in which they were used most.

 

There seems to be a turning point with old technology, certain things like a first generation Nintendo/Famicom console are lovely products in their retro glory. A friend of mine recently bought a flat and one of his ‘christening’ gifts was to set up his NES in his fancy HD big screen TV. We found that Duck Hunt, the game that uses a light gun, no longer works on new TVs, because of the way that the light gun was designed for CRTs (old style TVs) to map and track pixels. Something like a NES, a SNES or maybe even a Dreamcast, are seen as retro-tastic mementos of a golden past and childhood or teenhood or early adulthood, and yet my old laptops which are highly more sophisticated technically than games consoles, and my printers and USB accessories have been made to be obsolete by the successors.

 

Old games consoles from the 80s and 90s are quaint bits of retro, yet consoles from the 2000s are a heavy burden, because the new generation of consoles are basically the same in functionality – but do more! I think that the same cannot be said for the transition between say, the NES and the N64 – they do vastly different things and enable vastly different possibilities. However between say the PS3 and PS4 – they are basically the same machine where one does vastly more than the other but there is no qualitative transition of gaming or thinking or concept.

 

I would consider this way of consuming computer games and hardware to be in line with the critical Adorno view of late capitalist culture. Like Adorno I think that the transitions to newer technologies and the pressures to take up things like tablets and HD televisions; Blu-Rays, Tivos, 4G and cloud services are difficult to avoid to function in the modern world, but it is highly wasteful and makes things obsolete very quickly. I really love my new tablet computer at the moment, but I know there will be a day when it becomes hurrendously outdated and obsolete compared to what comes in the future.

 

What can we do about this? I feel like this is the open question that I cannot quite answer yet. I think this is the interesting open question of our culture. How do we find ways of opposing the trend of creating so much waste, while keeping modern? One thing I have done is that I’ve opened up my old laptops and taken various chips out and I’m going to re-use some of the hard drives and play with the RAM cards and explore the processor chipsets in the same child like way that I used to break things to see how they worked. One other reason I kept some of my old hard drives and processors are that they are a physical memento, a sentimental trinket that looks cool kept in my room, but they are also my, if you will excuse the amphiboly, memories.

Musical Conservatism

I’ve written too many posts on Adorno and music to run away from a topic that has been in my mind for a while. I keep alluding to the idea of musical conservatism in the vague hopes that I might address it as a separate issue. In this post I’ll give an attempt at firstly trying to define what musical conservatism is. I might then try (but this isn’t the priority of the post) to clarify why this is important and what might be at stake.

Musical Conservatism (MC)

It is often said that some composers are conservative compared to their peers. A boon example of this is the composer Edvard Grieg. Grieg wrote in the Romantic style when it was the ‘safe’ thing to do and it was already established. By contrast, the impressionist and expressionist composers take to new grounds stylistically and arguably ideologically. There are of course more contraversial examples of a conservative composer: Richard Strauss. Strauss wrote der Vier letzte Lieder, and stylistically occupies ‘high romanticism’, written in the 1940s, a period of time when High Romanticism is symbolically an old grandfather who is just about to die.

I am a fan of the Four Last Songs, and I saw it conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and cried. It’s emotive power is undeniable, but is it stylistically raw and innovative compared to its contemporaries? I’d be forced to say…no. It’s no Schoenberg, it’s not even as innovative as more popular and appealing music such as Gershwin or Rachmaninov. However Strauss nearly 50 years previously wrote Salome, a work considered to be part of the Modernist kaleidoscope of its day. Some conservatives can have revolutionary potential, or once did have revolutionary impetus. Another example might be Stravinsky, whose rhythmically focussed Rite of Spring shocked audiences but his later work was less daring.

Conservatism as a mindset

Perhaps the thing that makes MC similar to a political form of conservatism (I don’t distinguish between ‘big C/small c’ conservatism for now) is a commitment to some sense of status quo. Conservatism works within already established media, and even though it might improve on, or add to an already established genre, it is that a genre or form is established that the contribution in question can be called conservative.

Conservatism of musical sorts is a mindset. It’s dad-rock, where fathers yearn for some actual or imaginary younger age in which their idea of rebellion was through the now codified bands of album compilations and general interest publications. Conservatism is the phenomena of making heavy metal culture a successful money making industry, with all the related trappings of metal festivals, metal radio stations and shows, metal forums, merchandise and paraphernalia. Once leather trousers and long hair (inter alia) are established symbols, we already play to the established channels of cultural communication, namely, one identifies with the tribe. This can be of course, through degrees of negotiation and separation through the hegemony, but there is still nontheless a tacit sense of hegemony.

Conservatism is codification. This can be through symbolic expression of the cultural consumers, this can be through the stylistic genre itself and its musicological features, this may even be through the economic model in which the music and industries around it support itself: the established toilet circuits in which bands must gain recognition, or the star DJs who grant recognition to bands, or the record labels that establish and confer status within the established order.

What was once fresh is now freeze dried for mass consumption

Musical genres, subcultures around genres or even mindsets around musical and cultural modes of expression, may have once been revolutionary, they may have once been entirely different. They may have once been so different that they did not fit into the established pre-existing order of genre hierarchies. I remember seeing an interview with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in around 1988 or so, and he said that his music didn’t have a genre identity. This at the time was valid in the sense that what is now referred to as speed or thrash metal was not as codified. However, come today and we see bands with heavy and fast riffs using phrygian and dorian mode, exploiting 4-time tempi and lyrics about the distrust of the status quo, or violence, nuclear war or apocalyptic themes, and we might call it classic thrash metal.

Some presumptions

I’ve made some presumptions here. One is that conservatism means being derivative. I’m agnostic about this. Another presumption is that conservatism is inherently bad. Again I might say I would not feel obliged to respond to this point and leave this as an open question. Another open question I might put forward is: will everything that was once fresh become freeze-dried for mass consumption?

An analogy with gaming

An analogy with gaming might come into play. Chris Bateman often states his view that the games industry usually goes along with concepts that are already established and provide already-existing modes of activity and play. The next CoD game or Halo title is going to be largely similar to the last, in such a way that it’s almost immaterial that the next CoD includes a controllable doggy, or a powerlifter suit like the one Ripley piloted in Aliens. Innovative games are still possible and I think that seems to be the MO of those often working as indie developers or kickstarter-like budgets.

The musical conservatism that I put forward could be generalised as a cultural conservatism. There’s economic/business ramifications for putting forward recognisable products over untested and unknown quantities. However you often hear people talking about the freshness of when gamers first played Super Mario on the NES or came across a new gaming interface the first time. I remember my first Turn Based RPG like it was a first love. I’ve sought out many Turn Based RPGs since then but I begin to feel that it’s all the same after a while.

Musical Conservatism: so what?

Any fresh, idea-provoking or perception-challenging genre has the threat of appropriation. The appropriation of being a successful medium that brings in countless imitators. The original sense of perception-challenge is lost and simply absorbed into the status quo. Is it inevitable that we will all become musical conservatives? Even the genres that claim to be separate from the mainstream, have their own standards of conformity that dictate unto others what some sense of authenticity to the genre might be. In Black Metal such people are referred to kvlt and their seriousness is a form of self-parody. In modern parlance this very kind of discussion leans to hipster connotations. In my own time we might use these terms. In my own time it may be legitimate to demean me as a sad hipster seeking some sense of authenticity by the ratio of the more obscure something is, the purer it is as music. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to that point of view, as obscurity is not sufficient for authenticity (is it a necessary condition? I don’t suspect so either).

The issue of conservatism I suspect will spread to the future in whatever genres there are, and I am of strong conviction that there are historical cases in which such a discussion about whether a musician/composer/artist may be judged as conservative would be relevant in terms of their period.

JS Bach comes to mind when thinking about conservatism. I consider Bach as a composer superior to most of the greats. Is there a case for stating that JS Bach has revolutionary potential? In the 1980s there was a movement to return to Baroque repertories in the culture of studio recordings of orchestral works, in that sense there is an objectionable potential within Bach. In another sense, one might follow the Gould line and maintain that Bach upheld musical forms that were even in his own time, dated. I’ve been considering Bach in terms of the exegesis. But what about eisegesis? Bach is a pedagogical figure, a stepping stone to Beethoven, or Schoenberg, or even Jacques Loussier. Some people point to the mathematical nature of Bach, perhaps we might find fresh influence even still as musical work such as math rock, progressive rock, or the avant-garde work of say, Xenakis, that applies mathematical principles to compositional technique; might still have lessons drawn from Bach. If we are reading as Eisegesis, is Bach a conservative?

Coda: conclusions

Using the notion of conservatism I have found a form of self-critique in my own aesthetic preferences. I suspect that I am more conservative culturally than I might imply myself to be. What revolutionary potential is there in Schoenberg when his music is nigh-on 100 years old? What about the post-serialist composers and their radical potential?

I wonder if conservatism is inescapable. I wonder if its analogous to the insufferable conformist masses that Nietzsche described to be subsumed within slave morality, or like the conformist ‘sunday’ Christians described by Kierkegaard. Is there a potential to get out of such a place? When I read Adorno I keep a question like this in my mind and wonder if he leads to an answer. I also worry if committing to specific musical forms makes one historicist as well, but I suppose that’s a self-criticism for another post.

Two parables: The Comedian (II)

This story is about the curious and well documented incident of comedian Dave Chappelle leaving his successful comedy series in the making of its third season in the mid 2000s. I shall refer to Chappelle hence as ‘The Comedian’.

The Comedian grafted his way in an industry that sought to fit African American comedians through simplified stereotypes and personas. It took a while for Chappelle to make a presence in the entertainment industry and the right forum for his brand of comedy to have support from a television network or film studio, but eventually in the early-mid 2000s, it happened.

The Chappelle show was a very accessible insight into The Comedian’s vision of the world on issues of sexuality, race and politics. Chappelle’s sketches were not patronising and were recognised as breaching beyond ‘black comedy’ into comedy simpliciter. There is a monologue in Vin Diesel’s independent film ‘Multi-Facial’, that his ideal was to be a working actor that was an artist, not working to live. Diesel’s character makes a point that being committed to acting as an art form meant that some of the ‘greats’ of acting wouldn’t do advertisments. ‘You’re never gonna see (sic) Pacino do like potato chips or Denzel doing doughnuts’!, Diesel’s character says. Ironically Al Pacino appeared in a UK ad campaign for Sky Broadband this year.

Chappelle’s comedy sketches were both edgy and commercially viable. Chappelle support from other comedians such as Charlie Murphy and Paul Mooney (whose racial observations cut very deep). They say that DVD sales of the show had an unprecedented record high for a television show which led to much anticipation about his third season.

There came a point where the commercial success of the show was its undoing. The subtlety of The Comedian’s racial humour and the edginess of his socio-political observations were undermined by the commercially catchy one liners such as ‘I’m rich, Bitch!’ or ‘I’m Rick James, Bitch’, in my life, the line ‘cocaine’s a’helluva drug’ formed a backbone of in-jokes and references among my friends in 2006. The Comedian began to feel that the success of his show undermined his comedy, and was being interpreted in simplistic ways. Instead of challenging racism, the popularity of his humour (and its constant repetition) undermined this message and subversion became subverted. As a result to this, The Comedian left the show and was ‘missing’ for a short while leading people to speculate about his whereabouts. Some comedians speak of an informal ‘blacklisting’ of The Comedian since bailing on a $50mill contract. The Comedian still performs today, but not to audiences and the media outlets that he used to.

I think of this story as a way to understand the ways in which Adorno approaches culture. The Comedian’s story is one of a relationship with commercial success, having a social critique and the potential of social critique having a cultural impact. Does The Comedian’s account show, via negativa, that Adorno was right? That counterculture will eventually be subverted to the culture machine, unless it is all embracing of the negative. Through these everyday parables I would like to try and show the scope of what is at stake with the selected philosophical issues I’ve addressed over the past few years.

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (6): Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria

The only reason why Wagner’s characters can function as universal symbols is that they dissolve in the phantasmagoria like mist.

Adorno’s essay on ‘Phantasmagoria’ starts like a conversation that doesn’t have an introduction or preamble or any kind of context-setting. In the terms of modern gaming or films, it’s a cold beginning. The term Phantasmagoria is one which alludes to something in Marx’s Kapital, so says a translation note from Livingstone in my text. Marx’s Phantasmagoria, according to Livingstone, is the character of the effect that a commodity (that is, a product of human labour) is made to seem separate from the process of being constructed, or the fact that it is itself a result of human creation. Adorno does not lay this out, but presumably relies on our readership to have this familiarity. It’s not helpful to write about a concept without defining it. To describe a concept is not to define it. To ascribe what the concept is, is hardly explicative. Of course Adorno is dealing in a different set of intellectual standards to the likes of the contemporaneous Carnap – the former does not look so favourably in this particular essay. However I shall attempt to salvage some kind of thread from this very poorly written piece.

Wagner’s work is described with this concept ‘phantasmagoria’. Phantasmagoria in this context is a character or illusory status on the music. The illusory character that this work is not of this world, with no relationship with a grounded concrete reality. Surely this is a pretty neat innovation or property? Such a description reminds me of the impressionism of Debussy.

Through certain musical decisions, the instrumentation, the dynamics (volumes) and tempi, we may find ourselves in a world much different to the one that a 19th Century opera-attending audience had outside of the opera house. The air of a mystical fantasy world seems real with Wagner’s instrument choices in his part-writing, and the range of pitches he employs.

Phantasmagoria pertains to the effect an audience has from the music. Wagner successfully puts forward the dramatic worlds of the libretti text through music. A world of magic, of archaic character. This sense of convincing portrayal is illusion to Adorno. What the illusion consists in, is the concealment of the fact that this is a work of music, a work of performing instrumentalists following a score. Phantasmagoria is the end product and outcome that colours the whole experience and the whole process of tens of string players playing.

Adorno seems to suggest that this magic effect or phantasmagoria is the culmination of a Romantic ideal. A preoccupation with mystic, spiritual and dream-like imageries imbued in the musical text. What makes Wagner’s phantasmagoria different, is that this mysticism, this mist is a character of the commodity, it is a character of a wider capitalist, rather than aesthetic story. The problematic quality of the phantasmagoria is that it is a work of human effort, but effectively succeeds to conceal that fact. Perhaps an oversimplified way of describing this is to say that this is Marx’s alienation cashed out through the terms of culture.

Adorno considers phantasmagoria to have some relevance to a Schopenhauerian moral perspective, at this point I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on this too much. Phantasmagoria disguises an audience to the process of making music, conceals the fact of its construction. In doing so it contributes to a passive audience, phantasmagoria is conducive to duping audiences. In this way the Wagnerian compositional decisions are of a moral quality. Moral in the sense that they pertain to character traits: docility, passivity, subservience. We as the phantasmogorised (sic) audience are duped by the ephemera of fairy dust and glitter. I suspect that is as true today of pop music as it was then with the ignored fiddlers and horn blowers in the orchestra box.

Within the libretti of Wagner’s operas, Adorno (81) identifies an ascetic, self and pleasure denying mentality, which he describes as Feuerbachian (alluding to the Feuerbach idea that the Christian God is an internalisation of our desires and that our self-denial is key to achieving Christian moral ideals of character). Wagner seems to employ a sort of reversal of values, our suffering is a moral good and our pleasures are a form of sickness (82). To do so, according to Adorno is a phantasmagoria. In this description I find what is contained in this concept of phantasmagoria to be exceptionally broad, perhaps too broad to actually be rigorous.

I will focus subsequent attention to the essays as if they were a sequel to the thought begun in the essay on phantasmagoria. This is for two reasons, one is that to me these essays do not seem to make sense to me at all in terms of having some kind of unitary or thematic significance, and secondly, the only way to understand these essays in my view is in relation to Adorno’s concept of phantasmagoria.

Oddly enough, the essays in In Search of Wagner after Phantasmagoria tend to be the more philosophical yet for me, the most difficult to understand.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’

Introduction

 

In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.

 

I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!

 

Exegesis – motif 

 

Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:

 

“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]

 

Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.

 

Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.

 

The specific allegations 

 

Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.

 

Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.

 

I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.

 

Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.


Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.

 

Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.

 

The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.

Michael